The Youth Climate Strike was inspired by activist Greta Thunberg(who was then 14/15 years old) when she first staged a protest in August 2018 outside the Swedish parliament demanding for the government to reduce carbon emissions in accordance to the Paris Agreement.
Since then, there were strikes organised around the world where youths would not attend classes and participate in demonstrations to campaign for environmentally friendlier policies and practices.
Wanting to have their voices heard, the youths of Singapore also joined the movement on 15 March 2019, the very first Climate Strike in Singapore. On that momentous Friday, youths in Singapore participated in an online strike where they voiced their opinions to call for action against climate change.
In this article, I will share my insights on the most popular recommendations on policy and business practices suggested by Singapore’s youths and discuss the current efforts to against climate change in Singapore. The data used in this article is from the online climate strike survey that Singapore University students participated in on 15th March 2019. A huge thanks to Pamela and Qiyun for hosting the Climate Strike and for working closely with me and my partner for this analysis! Find them @tingkats.sg and @theweirdandwild on Instagram to understand more about climate issues and learn cool sustainability hacks!
What are the youths of Singapore saying?
A total of 260 voices were heard on Friday concerning various themes with the most addressed being waste management and plastic use in Singapore. This trend is reflected in the recommendations provided by youths as seen below. Enforcing new policies and business practices on waste management and plastic use emerged in top 5 of all the recommendations.
What exactly was brought up in the top recommendations?
Policies for waste management:
- Having businesses increase their recycling efforts and promoting sustainable food waste management
- Improving current methods for measuring gas emissions and waste production
- Reduce/Eliminate gas emissions by investing more in research and development as well as reforming the carbon tax
Policies for plastic use:
Reducing single use plastics/disposables and implementing incentives and disincentives such as imposing charges on disposables
Business practices for waste management:
Committing to more sustainable production and waste management practices
Business practices for plastic:
Actively reduce single use plastics and packaging alongside striving for bigger goals in the Singapore Packaging Agreement
What could all the buzz mean?
Aside from the two topics stated above, climate change education, provision of more eco-friendly products, increased investments in renewable energy, increased transparency in business practices and waste production were also frequently brought up. However, do the significantly high numbers of recommendations about waste management and plastic use signal that there is a lack of regulation or awareness to these particular problems in Singapore?
In the next segment, I will focus on plastic use in Singapore and around the world. Discussions on Singapore’s current approach on plastic use will also be explored.
Singapore’s plastic practices versus the rest of the World
As compared to Malaysians and Australians, Singaporeans use twice and thrice the number of plastic bags per day on average.
High plastic consumption is a challenge faced all over the world. As such, here are what other countries have done to reduce plastic use.
In 2009, Hong Kong implemented a scheme that required 3,000 of the country’s retail outlets to charge customers HK$0.50 (about S$0.09 at the time of writing) for every plastic bag they issued. Failure to do so could result in a fine of HK$2,000, with more serious offenders facing prosecution and fines up to HK$200,000. Two years after the implementation, only about two thirds of the retailers complied to the scheme at best.
Ireland was among the first to start taxing consumers 0.15 euro for each plastic bag they took at retail outlets in 2002. Within a year of implementation, plastic bags became socially unacceptable and after 12 years, plastic bag usage per capita fell by 4%. Money from the tax funded the nation’s waste management research and development and awareness campaigns amongst other projects. However, the success of this policy did not come easy as the government and business retailers had to work closely to address concerns such as increased risk of shop lifting and risk of compromised hygiene.
Having suffered much environmental devastation from excessive plastic bag consumption, the Kenyan government imposed a law on 28 August 2017, authorising the arrest and charging of anyone “found selling, producing or using the banned plastic materials”. Offenders could be fined anywhere between $19,417 to $38,834 or receive maximum imprisonment of four years. At the time of implementation, Kenya was recognised for having the world’s toughest stance on plastic bags. Despite the implementation of the law, concerns such as alternatives to plastics bags were not addressed and the potential job displacement of 60,000 workers involved in Kenya’s plastic bag export still remains contentious.
After reading about policies to manage plastic use in other countries it makes one wonder what Singapore, a developed and promising digital capital of Asia is doing to combat high plastic consumption.
Singapore’s stance on plastic use
Prior to the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) budget speech in March 2018, there has been several calls and actions taken towards the implementation of plastic bag levies. In September 2017, supermarket chains Dairy Farm Group, FairPrice, Sheng Siong and Prime Supermarket started discussions on a possible agreement on plastic bag levies at their stores.
During the MEWR budget speech on March 2018, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor said that Singapore did not intend to ban or tax single-use plastic bags. Singapore would instead focus on the broader issue of excessive consumption of all types of disposables including plastic bags as well as single-use food containers. Plastic pollution will be tackled with public education, not policy. Dr Amy Khor also mentioned that “quick fixes” like plastic bag charges might not work(as seen in the case of Hong Kong) and that the government would take a “long-term, holistic” approach. The government plans to reduce plastic consumption by instilling in her people “a national consciousness to care for the environment.”
Since the speech, steps taken include:
- Food delivery companies allowing customers to ‘opt out’ from having disposable cutlery in their orders
- Preparing businesses for declaring the type and amount of packaging their products would require and their plans for reducing packaging waste in 2021 as a National Environment Agency(NEA) requirement.
So why is it that Singapore decided to not impose levies on plastic bags even though some retailers in Singapore have reported a decrease in plastic bag use after charging for bags?
Arguments against plastic bag levies
- The use of biodegradable bags or paper bags might not necessarily be less harmful to the environment as Singapore incinerates our waste after which the ashes produced are taken to landfill.
- Plastic bags are necessary for bagging waste in our hot and humid climate to avoid attracting pests. Furthermore, they enable wet waste to be hygienically disposed of.
- Charging only on bags for dry items while exempting chargers for bags for fresh items was also proposed, similar to the system existed in Hong Kong. Dr Amy Khor argued that this “complicates the system,” and could make enforcement more difficult as seen in the high non-compliance rate in Hong Kong
- For Singapore, there would not be a significant or positive environmental impact if we banned/charged for plastic bags as plastic waste only accounts for 11% of the total waste produced in 2017. There are more concerning waste streams such as construction debris that make up 22% of total waste produced to address. Furthermore, with limited resources, implementing quick fixes like banning/charging for plastic bags without full understanding its impacts could end up wasting manpower and taxpayers’ money.
5. Instead of pushing for bans on plastic bags, Singapore should invest in innovative plastic waste treatment to minimise use of plastic packaging and improve plastic waste recycling rate which The Closing the Waste Loop research grant by NEA and National Research Foundation aims to do.
Singapore’s plans for the future
MEWR is currently assessing the feasibility of an Extended Producer Responsibility(EPR) system for plastics in Singapore. An EPR is a system that assigns plastic producers the responsibility to collect and recycle the products they put into the market. A well enforced EPR scheme would be able to hold businesses accountable and have them contribute to solutions resulting in a more committed and sustainable approach for Singapore’s waste reduction.
After reviewing the Climate Strike opinions and exploring the extensive discussions on plastic use in Singapore, we can see that the high numbers in plastic use recommendations do not stem from the lack of regulation or awareness of the problem. Instead, it is due to the complexities faced uniquely by Singapore that would require a more conservative and measured approach in reducing plastic consumption.
There are tonnes of conversations and campaigns on improving sustainability in Singapore so please, do join in to find out more and have your voice heard in the next Climate Strike! (you can start by following @tingkats.sg and @theweirdandwild on Instagram)